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The Old Folksinger reflects
on the state of the nation,
yet still finds a reason to believe

This is another segment from "My Obituary", the long interview on my career in folk music published in the Canadian Folk Music Bulletin.

We live in a time and in a society that must be one of the most heavily and most successfully propagandized in history. We are under an avalanche of pressure to disavow our own experience and needs (and our communities' experience and needs) and substitute the proscribed attitudes churned out by the centre of money, power and mass communications.

For instance, these days many people, maybe even most people, really believe that the country is broke. We have been told that so often. We can't afford medicare, or unemployment insurance, or battered women's shelters because we're broke. It's propaganda, a posture that has nothing to do with our own experience. Just look around. Walk down Bloor Street in Toronto, 4th Avenue in Vancouver, walk through Kensington in Calgary, then tell me the country is broke! We are rich as Croesus. As a society, we can afford VCRs, handi-cams, CD players, cable TV, the Blue Jays, The Phantom of the Opera - but we can't afford medicare? In Ontario they reduce the income of welfare mothers to "fight the deficit," and then give a tax break to people who are better off to "stimulate the economy." It takes a powerful load of propaganda to make people swallow something so obviously contradictory, so openly self-serving. But the propaganda is incredibly pervasive. It is damn hard not to be taken in, hard to trust your own experience and not substitute the "wisdom" of the rich, articulate guys in suits who dominate TV, radio and the press. I mean, Geoffrey Simpson looks knowledgeable, he sounds knowledgeable and he is saying the same thing they are all saying... if he thinks the emperor's new clothes are terrific, they must be.

But, despite the avalanche of propaganda, we do have our own real interests and histories, and our communities have their real interests and histories. Eventually, stretched far enough, the veil of propaganda starts to tear, and those real interests, that real experience, comes back into focus. Inherent in the domination of public discourse by the rich and powerful is its antithesis, because in many ways we can feel that our own community values are just not there. I think the next few years are going to see a very exciting fight over the soul of the country. I am not a Pollyanna about this. The bad guys are winning. If they get their way, and they very well might, they could do such damage to the fabric of the country, the fabric of our communities, they could so Americanize us, that it will take generations to recover.

The same forces are at play when it comes to music. The entertainment industry juggernaut has certainly marginalized folk music, just as the political juggernaut has marginalized community itself - the source of folk music. Being a folksinger was never an easy job, but now it is harder than ever. The cultural organizations that have played an important part keeping non-commercial culture enterprises afloat - including folk singers - are being cut to the bone. Meanwhile the commercial entertainment alternatives, from watching videos at home to spending $100 to see Showboat, have never been more pervasive, more hyped. I seriously doubt whether Stringband could have kept going, had those days been like these.

And yet, and yet ... people like you and me, people who like the music, who like the heart it has, feel the absence. And given the opportunity, we will express our own community interest. That is what happened with GABRIOLA V0R1X0.

When I decided to record again, after being away from the studio for something like 15 years, I wasn't very confident. Would an album by an old folksinger get any play? Would there be venues where I could perform? Would I be able to sell more than 200 copies to die-hard old Stringband fans? To be confident would have been to be foolish. So I decided to fundraise. I set out to raise $5000. When the dust had settled, I raised $25,000! It was the single most rewarding experience of my working life. It was my Academy Award. Of course it was flattering; it is wonderful to feel that appreciated.

But I think something else was going on: I think people saw a chance to fight back against the system, against the music industry, to express solidarity with their own community's music. And as a result of their intervention, I was able to once again put out songs expressing the values we share. I was able to express my (and our) equivocal thoughts about marriage and parenting in these times. I was able to make a song out of our anger and hurt at the destruction of the wilderness - and our determination to stop it. And those expressions go back into the community, and strengthen it against the rain of propaganda. That's what I do. That's what folk songs have always done.

I think now, as I get older, it is my fate to remain fairly obscure, to be a marginal performer who has little impact on mainstream culture. What I do won't be the lead story in the entertainment section of The Globe, it won't get rotation on MuchMusic. I won't play the Glenn Gould Theatre or do a guest spot with Rita McNeill. Too bad. But I know how much effect my work has on people in my community, who take the energy of my songs and channel it into their work, and their work encourages someone else. That's the legacy of what I do, and that feels pretty good to me.


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